ROME - Almost five million children under the age of five die of malnutrition every year in the developing world. Food aid - which mainly contains nutrient-poor carbohydrates - does little to address the absence of a diverse diet that would prevent the condition.
Humanitarian relief organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is therefore urging policy makers to boost food security and improve the quality of food aid that feeds the world's hungry. To fight malnutrition in the long-term, however, African governments need to invest in small-scale farming to create food autonomy.
More than 20 million children suffer from severe, acute malnutrition in the developing world. Half of the 9.7 million deaths of children under five each year are caused by the condition, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It will cost $5 billion a year alone to feed children under the age of three in developing countries, MSF said.
Malnutrition is not only triggered by lack of food, as is commonly assumed, but also by poor nutritional quality. It is particularly prevalent in areas such as the Sahel region, where children have little access to a diverse diet that contains a variety of minerals, proteins and vitamins. In many developing countries, families have to live off starchy staples, such as maize, millet and sorghum.
"This goes to show that Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1, to halve poverty and hunger by 2015, and MDG 4, to reduce child mortality by two thirds by 2015, are strongly interlinked. Hunger directly influences levels of child mortality," said MSF programme manager Huub Verhagen.
"Yet, malnutrition is globally under-recognised as a problem and is not even specifically mentioned as one of the causes for child mortality in the MDG document," he added.
Providing any type of food to fill the stomachs of the hungry is not enough to solve the problem, though. Food aid needs to be diverse to form a wholesome, nutritional base so that those who have suffered hunger can grow back their strength, gain weight and rebuild muscle in a healthy manner. But most food aid currently shipped to regions where hunger and poverty are rife is made up of carbohydrate-heavy, but protein- and vitamin-poor cereal-based products, developed more than 30 years ago.
"Those cereal-based products are completely sub-standard because they lack the right nutrients and proteins under-nourished people need," explained Verhagen, suggesting that governments and aid agencies rather invest in newly developed, ready-to-use therapeutic foods, which are especially manufactured high-nutrient meals that help malnourished people to recover quickly.
Sub-standard food aid
To a large degree, the issue of hunger and malnutrition within African countries remains unsolved due to political reasons, Verhagen further explained, because governments are reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the problem and are unwilling to invest in food aid because "food is a politically sensitive issue".
"Hunger is often a problem that seems financially not solvable, so governments try to sweep it under the carpet. They don't want to attract global attention to the fact that they are unable to feed their population," he believes. The Nigerian government, for example, has prohibited MSF from working on malnutrition in the country.
Ultimately, however, hunger and malnutrition are not averted by providing high quality food aid to the hungry, but by enabling people to feed themselves - through major investments in local agriculture.
"Food aid is a necessary form of emergency relief, but it should go beyond a quick fix solution," Verhagen added. "We need to develop long-term, economic policies to address the problem of malnutrition and hunger."
Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the last couple of decades. "There has been a major decrease of funding allocation to agriculture, despite the fact that there are more than one billion hungry people in the world," said Laurent Thomas, director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) emergency operations and rehabilitation division.
"Malnutrition has become a chronic emergency," Thomas added, noting that 30 billion dollars are needed annually to fight world hunger, "but this investment has not happened".
There has been little progress in scaling up support for agriculture, especially for smallholder farmers in developing countries, and no advancement in stepping up food production, he explained, while highlighting the fact that "this needs to the be the main, overarching intervention if we want to reduce hunger."
Pio Wennubst, deputy permanent representative of Switzerland to FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP), agreed with Thomas. "Programmes like the WFP, are actually not feasible because they bring food into countries in a very expensive way. That money could instead be invested into agriculture so that people can grow and eat locally produced food," said Wennubst.
International aid programmes need to include clauses that help developing countries to protect their local agricultures, particularly small-scale farming, and make them sustainable, he further explained.
More than 80 percent of agricultural land worldwide is farmed by smallholder farmers who each own less than two hectares of land, according to IFAD. But those farmers, who are mainly women, generally lack access to irrigation, infrastructure and markets to distribute and sell their produce. In addition, due to gender discrimination, women are frequently unable to gain land ownership and access loans and resources. As a result, their yields are small and their sales low.
"Small-scale farming has a woman's face," said IFAD senior technical advisor on gender and household food security, Annina Lubbock. "Women produce 60 percent to 80 percent of the world's food, yet their work remains largely unrecognised."
"Paradoxically, most of the hungry are those who produce food," agreed Thomas. "To address the root cause of the food crisis, we need to support small-scale farmers and livestock owners."
Governments and aid agencies need to implement long-term policies and programmes aimed at increasing the production capacity of farmers, he demanded. "The good news is that the recent food crisis has raised renewed international awareness around the importance of local food production versus just focusing on building safety nets."